Trend-spotting ancient Chinese fashion fads

Published on 12 September 2018

Chinese historical fashion enthusiast Gong Pan Pan is inspired by how clothes speak volumes on society and culture. (Photos: Gong Pan Pan)

By Huang Lijie

Some people see the world in a grain of sand. For Chinese historical fashion enthusiast Gong Pan Pan, universal beauty and significance is codified in sartorial splendour.

The 32-year-old public servant found herself wrapped up in ancient Chinese fashion and culture in 2015, after dressing up in outfits from different Chinese historical periods for her wedding photo shoot. The loveliness of traditional Chinese clothing caught her fancy, and its rich history and artistry has continued to fan her passion in the subject.

She pores over books on the topic and scours the Internet for images of artefacts and historical paintings that offer a look at fashion back in the day. Her research, in turn, inspires dress-up sessions with like-minded friends. She shares photos of these sessions on her blog and social media channels, along with detailed writings about the historical references of the fashion depicted.

She says: “I used to think fashion is frivolous and that it feeds the economy of vanity.” But her plunge into the world of Chinese historical fashion has made her confront her bias.

“A dress is not just a dress. It tells us something about the evolution of cultures and the exchange of ideas,” she says. This is the premise of her talk at the Esplanade on fashion trends in ancient China that would seem cutting-edge to audiences today. Here, she offers three titbits:

1. Makeup for facial contouring and that bitten lip look 

In paintings from the Jin and Wei dynasties (265–420 and 386-534/5 respectively), when Buddhism rose in popularity, people were shown wearing makeup that highlights the forehead and nose in yellow pigment, reminiscent of the glow of golden Buddhist sculptures, says Gong.

And if the lip makeup in hit drama The Story of Yanxi Palace reminds you of the bitten lip look trending today, you are not alone. The lip makeup in the show references a Qing dynasty (1644 to 1911/2) trend where women would paint only their lower lip, creating the bitten lip effect. Another lip makeup fad from that period is the rosebud look with a small flower-like motif drawn on the lips.

2. V-neck, vertical stripes and sweeping hemlines

The plunging necklines of red carpet looks today seem less shocking when you consider how revealing necklines used to be in the Tang dynasty (618–907). Gong says the body-confident silhouettes then coincided with the rise of female power, as seen in the ascendance of strong empresses such as Wu Zetian. The deep V-tops, however, were usually paired with floor-sweeping hemlines. Vertical patterns, reminiscent of wide stripes, were also seen in skirts of that time.

3. Flower crowns and lazy top knots

That half-up, half-down top knot trend was not foreign to the Tang dynasty. Paintings from that time show palace maids and attendants wearing their hair in knots tied to the side, “an intentionally casual look that actually takes a lot of time” to pull off, says Gong.

And those flower crowns that hipsters wore to music festivals until recently? Gentlemen from the Song dynasty were a step ahead, judging from paintings of that time. Gong says people of that period pursued not gold and silver, but beauty in art and nature, and there was no rigid definition of the masculine vis-a-vis the feminine.

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